Indy 500: Ain't what it used to be?

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS -- I hope you didn't miss that.

Much of the attention on the Indianapolis 500 over the last 15 years has been of the "It ain't what it used to be" variety. The criticism is exactly right.

For the last 25 laps on Sunday, it was better than it used to be -- far and away the most exciting finish to the race I can remember. In that period there were five different race leaders, three of them drivers who've never won at Indy.

The lead passed from Scott Dixon to Danica Patrick on lap 179 when Dixon pitted. Would Patrick, still the only woman to ever lead the race, become the first female winner?

It turned out her fate was the same, as she would run short of fuel, and was actually passed by Bertrand Baguette before visiting pit lane. Baguette had the same problem and yielded the lead to fellow unknown J.R. Hildebrand with four laps to go.

And Hildebrand had it. He had it! I've heard it said before, "All he has to do is keep it out of the wall." That was, unfortunately, too much for the 23-year-old rookie. After 799 successful left turns, he got too high in No. 800 and clipped the wall exiting turn four on the final lap.

As he continued to ride the wall toward the finish, fans were wondering, "Can he still cross the line first?"

It turned out that was in the card for Dan Wheldon, who finished 2.1 seconds before Hildebrand.

Then as Wheldon sat in Victory Lane with tears streaming down his face, we all learned the story of his mother having been diagnosed with Alzheimer's recently. He had teamed with the Alzheimer's Association this month to increase awareness of the disease and its effects.

There's also the fact that Wheldon -- one of just five former winners in the field -- doesn't have the sponsorship to have a ride for the remainder of the IndyCar schedule. Let's hope that's not a problem after this weekend.

What a race, what a finish. I'm writing this on Monday because I spent the rest of Sunday just trying to wrap my head around it all.

So I don't care if you're 130 and can remember every one of the 95 runnings of the Indianapolis 500 over the last century. You had never before seen what happened Sunday.

On recently, we posted a simple question: "What is your level of interest in the upcoming Indianapolis 500?

The responses made it clear that interest in the race has waned over the years.

* I'll watch, but my interest is not what it once was.: 27.2% (115 votes)

* I no longer have any interest in the race.: 27.2% (115 votes)

* I have remained a big fan through the years.: 20.6% (87 votes)

An additional quarter of respondents said they've never been race fans.

I suppose in looking at the grand scheme, the race isn't what is used to be. I cut my teeth on the days when guys continued to race at Indy until they practically had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, away.

In the late '80s and early '90s, I got to watch the twilight of the careers of Foyt, Big Al, Mears, Rutherford, Mario, Johncock and Sneva.

In 1992, there were 10 former winners in the field, along with future winners Al Unser Jr., Eddie Cheever and Buddy Lazier.

The fans were really lucky then, and we probably won't be that lucky again. I'm sorry. Some eras in sports are a bit more stacked than others.

There are still a lot of great stories here, though. Every year, Helio Castroneves, who's still just 36, is trying to become the fourth four-time winner. Wheldon and Dario Franchitti are gunning for No. 3, an accomplishment just nine have achieved.

Patrick is in the mix to become the first female winner, and Hildebrand has to be gunning for some redemption.

And let's not forget Tony Kanaan, who is trying to avoid becoming this generation's Michael Andretti, leading a ton of laps here and never crossing the Yard of Bricks first.

So if you think there's no reason to watch, you are sadly mistaken. If you love this race, then come back -- there's plenty to see.

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